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Advocates call for vaccinating inmates to stem COVID-19 spread

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Idaho prison file photo

This June 15, 2010, photo shows the Idaho Correctional Center south of Boise, Idaho, now called the Idaho State Correctional Center.

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BOISE — Inmates in Idaho’s jails and prisons are at a high risk of coming into contact with COVID-19 but have yet to be categorized as group for priority vaccination.

Idaho’s vaccine supply is limited, but inmate vaccination is a measure that attorneys, physicians and judges say is necessary to maintain not only due process, but also the health and safety of entire communities.

In Ada County, judges have been vaccinated, according to Steven Hippler, Ada County administrative district judge who said that Central District Health authorized this round of vaccinations for court personnel. Jury trials in Idaho are scheduled to resume March 1, meaning members of the judiciary, alongside prosecutors and other court staff, will be coming into contact with both inmates and members of the public testifying at in-person trials.

Federal judges and prosecutors at the Idaho District Court began making plans to get vaccinated after Ada County judges, as well as certain staff, got access to the vaccine through CDH this week. This raised concern among advocates who argued that while it’s critical for the judiciary to move forward for the sake of defendants’ constitutional rights, the criminal justice system has a primary obligation to ensure that a system intended to rectify wrongdoing does not place the lives of those in its custody at further risk.

Inmates are some of Idaho’s most vulnerable. People incarcerated inside jails and prisons cannot follow the recommendations made by public health experts to prevent the spread of the virus. Social distancing is practically impossible inside cells. Cohorting, the practice of isolating groups of prisoners when an outbreak is discovered, which is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, means that the health of some prisoners will be sacrificed to prevent facility-wide spread.

Jeff Keller, chief medical officer at Badger Correctional Medicine, serves on Idaho’s Coronavirus Vaccine Advisory Committee as well as the board of the American College of Correctional Physicians and has advocated to have inmates vaccinated as a priority group.

“So far, CVAC has not approved that. But they have specifically approved that inmates are eligible at the point anybody in similar circumstances is eligible on the outside,” Keller said.

Right now, if an inmate is 65 or older, that inmate can request vaccination, which is then coordinated with the help of correctional staff through the regional health department. More inmates will become eligible as vaccine access expands.

The CDC’s recommendations for jails include use of personal protective equipment, temperature checks, and the early identification of inmates with underlying health conditions that put them at higher risk if exposed to COVID-19, though it’s unknown whether whether those recommendations have been adhered to in their entirety at county jails.

“Human rights is exactly where to start this whole conversation,” said Richard Eppink, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho. “This goes back to before we even had vaccines. This goes back to last March and the response from Idaho Department of Correction and our county jails, which was a very slow response.”

Eppink said staff at the ACLU are concerned about a number of practices and conditions documented at jails across the state since COVID-19 reached Idaho last year. Data from county jails has been difficult to obtain, he said, but there have been recorded outbreaks, and case infection rates published by IDOC function as a reliable proxy.

In total, IDOC reported 12 new active COVID-19 infections Thursday. The department had 107 tests pending and reported an additional 141 asymptomatic positive cases. These numbers suggest that despite an active testing process and screening for all inmates who enter IDOC facilities, the virus is still spreading, and those incarcerated cannot do much to prevent it.

At least four people in IDOC custody have died with COVID-19, according to previous Idaho Press reports.

In Idaho, county jails also house hundreds of convicted state inmates — because the state’s prison system is overcrowded — but the vast majority of jail inmates have not yet been convicted.

State and federal prisoners are testing positive at higher rates than the rest of the population, said Casey Parsons, an ACLU advocacy fellow focused on the spread of COVID-19 in jails.

“I want to emphasize that this is also an issue of racial inequity in Idaho jails and prisons. Black and Latinx people are disproportionately incarcerated in jails and prisons in Idaho and are also disproportionately affected by COVID-19,” Parsons said. Federal statistics show white Americans receiving the COVID-19 vaccine at significantly higher rates than Americans of color.

Keller said it’s important to understand that inmates are not the primary way COVID-19 spreads through jails. Transmission into detention settings occurs primarily through staff bringing the virus into the facility, he said, adding that the politicization of the vaccine has created a scenario where law enforcement and correctional staff are choosing not to vaccinate despite being eligible since January, therefore placing inmates and even the general public at even greater risk.

A January report from the American College of Correctional Physicians states that “correctional officers have one of the highest, if not the highest risk of contracting COVID-19 of any occupation.”

Both Keller and Parsons estimated that 50% of the correctional staff they’d been in touch with had been vaccinated. Officials with both the Ada and Canyon County sheriff’s offices said they are not mandating staff get the vaccine, but have made it available to those who want it.

It is unclear whether the Vaccine Advisory Committee will approve inmates as a subgroup. At a Tuesday media briefing on vaccines, state public health administrator Elke Shaw-Tulloch answered a question regarding priority vaccination for inmates before the general public, stating that “as a general, ‘go in and vaccinate the entire population,’ we have not gotten to that stage yet with conversations with CVAC.”

Both Keller and Parsons said it’s a political and public relations issue to vaccinate inmates before the general public. The state of Colorado, for example, planned to vaccinate inmates in its Phase 2 priority category before public backlash caused Gov. Jared Polis to reverse course.

The CDC supports the implementation of vaccination in federal prisons, according to the agency, but “does not determine strategic plans for distributing and administering vaccines for state or local correctional and detention centers.”

Updated CDC guidance on Jan. 11 encouraged vaccinating staff and incarcerated people “at the same time because of their shared increased risk of disease.”

“Outbreaks in correctional and detention facilities are often difficult to control given the inability to physically distance, limited space for isolation or quarantine, and limited testing and personal protective equipment resources,” the agency wrote.

Central District Health receives 6,000 to 7,000 doses of the vaccine per week. Christine Myron, the district’s public information officer, said vaccines would be distributed to inmates through IDOC’s enrolled provider, Corizon, and acknowledged the danger of rapid COVID-19 transmission in detention settings.

“We have seen a number of outbreaks among incarcerated populations in our community, though we recognize that our community partners are working diligently to minimize exposures among incarcerated residents and staff, and have very effective plans in place to mitigate risk,” Myron said.

“Our prisons/jails/detention centers employ a large number of people in our communities who go back and forth from work and to their families, which can put them at greater risk for exposing people in their personal lives. Conversely, they may become exposed in their personal life and expose those in their work setting.”

At the Ada County Jail, there are nine inmates with active COVID-19 infections who are housed in the Health Services Unit, sheriff’s office spokesman Patrick Orr said. Neighboring Canyon County reported zero active cases in its jail. Neither county has a formal plan in place to vaccinate inmate populations and are currently only vaccinating based on priority eligibility through the health departments.

Asked to share the percentage of Ada County Sheriff’s Office employees who have been vaccinated, Orr wrote, “The number of employees who have chosen to be vaccinated is private and protected medical information.”

Orr said 12 inmates at the Ada County Jail have refused to take a COVID-19 test.

Inmates’ refusal to take the test stems in part from the likelihood that a positive result means isolation. The ACLU’s Eppink described a punitive response to positive cases of the virus.

“If someone at IDOC in a unit reports positive COVID-19 symptoms, and we’ve heard a little about this from some of the jails as well, they will place everybody in a unit in quarantine,” he said.

“They put you in isolation, take all of your property away and you spend 14 days in isolation with very little human contact, and for some people no human contact. The emotional and mental effects of even just three or four days of that can last a lifetime.”

The practice both discourages prisoners from reporting symptoms and incurs prisoners to put pressure on others not to speak up, he added.

From the perspective of advocates, incarceration is the punishment. The job of society then becomes to ensure that those in custody are well taken care of. Keller noted, “Yes, people in our jails have committed crimes, but we as a society in the United States incarcerate by far more people per population than any other nation on earth including China, Russia, and even Saudi Arabia,” he said.

“In almost all nations on Earth, greater than 50% of the people we have in our jails would not be in there,” Keller said. “We have chosen to jail when almost every other nation wouldn’t. And we’re going to deny them health care?”

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